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Best photography product of 2013: Sony Alpha A7

Traditional digital camera makers have not had the best of years in 2013. Hurt by falling sales, high operating costs, and the rise of smartphone photography, they have had to cut forecasts and production, and do anything to help their bottom lines. Even with all this tumult, we’ve seen some of the best cameras in years.

Now that most of your favorite companies have finally admitted smartphones are a real and unstoppable threat, they have gone back to doing what they do best – making really excellent cameras. No more fighting with smartphones, or trying to figure out the whole Internet connectivity business – let’s just go and make the best cameras we can, seems to be the new mantra.

This year every major manufacturer – Canon, Sony, Nikon, Panasonic, Ricoh Pentax, Samsung, Olympus and Fujifilm – has at least one camera to brag about, and deservedly so. But some just shone brighter than others, becoming some of our new favorites. Without further ado, here are our best cameras of 2013.

(Les Shu contributed to this story.)

Camera of the Year

Sony Alpha A7

Sony-Alpha-7-lens-off-1There was no doubt Sony’s mirrorless full-frame wonder would lead the competition for this title. Even before Sony made it official, when rumor sites were no longer just leaking but pouring information about the A7 (and its brother, the A7R), we knew Sony was about to announce something special. In fact, it was only Sony’s game to lose: Canon’s Dual-Pixel AF has done wonders for DSLR videography, but that’s about it; Samsung did what it knew best and loaded the Galaxy NX with Android, but the experience isn’t perfect; and even Sony’s QX concept is radically cool, but it’s just a stopgap until the company figures out how to tackle the connectivity conundrum – just to name a few of the other exciting cameras that came out this year. Given the build-up, Sony’s A7 had to meet expectations and, boy, it sure did.

With a compact size yet sporting a large sensor normally found in much-larger DSLRs, the A7 does a fantastic job capturing beautiful photos with rich colors – what we expect from a full-frame sensor, and proof that mirrorless cameras are only getting better. Autofocus is speedy, the electronic viewfinder is fantastic, and it’s not as intimidating as a bulky DSLR. Of course, it’s not perfect: burst mode and battery life could be better, for example. But the cons weren’t enough to overshadow the many positives. It’s just a fun camera to use, albeit a pricey one. Yes, the A7R is a stronger camera in terms of specs, but we didn’t think it was any better when it comes to image quality, although it was a better ISO performer.

We definitely saw a lot of great cameras this year. When manufacturers stop worrying about things they can’t control – such as the smartphone photo revolution – and decide to make cool cameras that shoot great photos, you get something as outstanding as the A7, Digital Trends’s Camera of the Year.

For more check out our review of the Sony Alpha A7 camera.

Best DSLR

Canon EOS 70D

Canon EOS 70D front left angleCanon and Nikon were neck-in-neck for this award, but Canon wins it with the EOS 70D’s new Dual Pixel AF, which allows for faster autofocusing in Live View mode. Even though the name is weird, Dual Pixel AF gives the user an accurate, “camcorder-like” video capture experience. We’re happy to see that Canon continues to improve DSLR videography with each new model – an area the company edges Nikon. Both the Nikon D7100 and EOS 70D take amazing still photos, but Canon squeaks by thanks to advanced video prowess.

For more check out our review of the Canon EOS 70D camera.

Best “connected” camera

Samsung NX300

Samsung NX300 front angleYou’d have thought Samsung’s Android-powered Galaxy NX would have walked away with this award, but it actually goes to another Samsung camera, the NX300. It’s not to say the Galaxy NX is a bad camera – the concept is unique, Android OS is smooth and useful, and the camera takes really good photos. The problem is that it has trouble combining everything into a great user experience. The NX300, however, is the opposite. It’s a fantastic mirrorless compact system camera, and while it isn’t as always connected as the Galaxy NX (which has Wi-Fi and cellular/LTE), the NX300 makes sharing your photos a pleasure rather than a chore, something we wish all camera makers would master as well as Samsung.

For more check out our review of the Samsung NX300 camera.

Best compact camera

Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II

sony-cyber-shot-rx100-ii-right-side-zoom-angle-1486x991The traditional point-and-shoot camera hasn’t had a good year, and it’s only going to get worse as smartphones continue to become the people’s preference for casual photography. But the category isn’t completely dead, as there are many folks who still want a pocket camera with an optical zoom lens that shoots better photos than a smartphone (they have the research numbers to back it up). Sony’s RX100 II is that camera. It’s highly compact, yet it packs a 1-inch sensor – that’s bigger than what you’ll usually find in a camera of this size – and features a f/1.8 zoom 3.6x Carl Zeiss lens. There are lots of advanced shooting modes and features; this small shooter simply takes beautiful photos and movies.

For more check out our review of the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II camera.

Best premium camera

Fujifilm X100S

Fujifilm X100S Camera front angleHigh-end cameras are naturally pricey, but the Fujifilm X100S looks and feels it – the way Leicas and Lamborghinis do. Modeled after Japanese cameras of the last century, this retro-styled shooter is beautiful enough that any street photographer would be happy to carry one. It’s not all about looks, however: It has a large APS-C sensor that delivers superior stills, and an excellent viewfinder for framing street scenes. There aren’t any handholding features as you’ll find on a point-and-shoot, nor is the fixed-focus lens a feature for everyone. But, oh, it sure is retro-cool and takes wonderful photographs.

For more check out our review of the Fujifilm X100S camera.

Best “out-of-the-box” camera

Sony Cyber-shot QX-series

sony cybershot qx 100When rumors surfaced about Sony working on a lens-only camera, many of us questioned the concept. Yet the camera-inside-a-lens-barrel is very real. The Cyber-shot QX is a series of unique point-and-shoot cameras designed to work with smartphones – simply attach it to one, pair the two devices, and you have a fully functional digital camera with an optical lens and a smartphone screen as your display. We spent some time with the QX10 and the higher-end QX100 recently, and while there is an awesome gee-whiz factor to them, we weren’t as impressed with the performance and stability of the connection as we had hoped. Whether or not the QX series succeeds is another story, but for thinking out of the box, Sony takes home the award with this duo. Nikon’s AW1, the “digital Nikonos” rugged mirrorless camera, was a close runner-up.

For more check out our review fo the Sony Cyber-shot QX-series camera.

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